Happy New Year!

Are you enjoying this first week of the year as much as I am?  It’s cold and rainy here in the Bay Area.  Perfect weather for packing up the holidays and unpacking plans for the year to come.

I’ve spent the last few days moving things from one floor to another trying to restore order here at home.  We had holiday house guests for nearly three weeks—so fun!  But that meant that every room (including our glamping tent), every dish, and every linen was pressed into service.

Also, things piled up.  Papers, mail, recycling, laundry. So the last few days have been spent sorting and savoring the season (not to mention the remaining holiday treats.)

My mother-in-law always says “a change is as good as a rest.”  Vacations—and aren’t the holidays a vacation from our everyday life?—often leave me energized and ready to tackle old projects anew. This week as I put things right I’m already scheming about new design projects. Specifically I’m ready to start feathering our new nest with furnishings more appropriate for the home’s era (contemporary) and feeling (spare but comfortable).  First up—some Pinterest planning sessions and then the hunt will begin.

But before I dive in I’m taking a moment to enjoy a few new items that found their way under the tree.

First, a Pendleton wool blanket as a winter topper for our bed. We bought one in the Yellowstone pattern for our guest bed years ago and I’ve always enjoyed the weight of it when mid-night insomnia drives me to the guest room to read.  Wanting to enjoy the same cozy sensation in my own bed I chose the graphic San Miguel pattern to enhance my winter’s sleep (and M.J.’s, of course, which is why I gifted it to him).

Next, a beautiful new pot to make winter stews. Over time I’ve gravitated to Le Crueset cookware for most all my stove top stewing and braising.  However, the LC pots I owned ranged from small to medium in size and were purchased in Cherry Red to match our old red-accented kitchen.  I was making do with some well-worn stainless steel pots for larger cooking projects but hinted that I might be ready to upgrade.  M.J. picked out this beautiful 7.5-quart model in Ocean (exclusive to Williams-Sonoma) to match our teal granite countertops.  What a luxury to make winter soups without worrying about them spilling over onto the stovetop. Eventually I may find a place to store this dreamy enameled pot, but for now I love how it commands center stage on the cooktop.

And finally, some hand carved “toaster tongs.”  This is a little kitchen tool that I bought in volume for gifts this season after picking one up while reporting on the ACCA Craft Fair here in San Francisco last summer. These may seem silly (after all, can’t we all fish our toast out of the toaster with a fork?) but these ingenious little tongs are pleasant to the touch and—due to a little magnet that keeps them attached to the toaster—always accessible.

How about you?  Were there any home gifts under your Christmas tree that you’re savoring in the hushed aftermath of the holidays?  And what plans are you cooking up for your house and garden in 2016?


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Friday Things: The Ease Edition

Well, here we are again.  First couple of weeks of December done.  Holidays in full swing.  To Do lists hopefully getting shorter and shorter or abandoned entirely.  After all, at some point you just have to say enough is enough, right?  Otherwise you miss it all by racing to the finish line.

I still have some wrapping up (and wrapping!) to do but I’m trying to invoke my “Word of the Year” every time I start to feel that familiar holiday panic over demands on my time, energy and resources. I’ve used the word “Ease” as a guiding principle throughout 2015 and though it’s not been a particularly easy year, invoking “ease” when called upon made a real difference. Even if a situation was challenging, just thinking that I wanted to tackle it with “ease” has helped me take a step back, analyze what needed to be done and try (not always, but mostly) to calmly take in the moment. Of course, the word “ease” also nudged me to simplify some things in my life and not obsess about what didn’t get done.  Helpful practices both.

If you are interested in setting some intentions for next year by choosing a single word for direction you might want to work through some of these exercises provided by London photographer and writer Susannah Conway.  Her free five-day Find Your Word course started today.

Hope you’re well, finding some sparkle in your life and taking everything in stride.  Wishing you peace as you ease on down the road toward’s the New Year.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

This Thanksgiving, like every Thanksgiving, will be a little different.  Over the past year our regular gathering place–my friend Pauline’s house–suffered a catastrophic fire.  So we’ll gather in a new place.  A rental nearby.  Surely one of the weekend activities will be touring what’s left of the old place. The photos were sobering.  I expect the actual devastation will be worse.  But there will also be talk about what’s to come next.  Rebuilding plans will be shared. Look–a new, better kitchen for future Thanksgivings!  We’ll focus on that.  And eat pies–some old, some new like this Cranberry Curd Tart. Life goes on. Different but also the same.

Wishing you a wonderful day whether you’re hosting or helping.

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Autumn Dinner Party Menu

More garden descriptions and photos soon but in the meantime, as promised, here are recipes and links to my Autumn Dinner Party.  It relies heavily on Ina Garten recipes because they’re reliable, easy to execute and crowdpleasers.  In fact, I received several requests for recipes after the party and one of our guests deemed the baked beans the best she’d ever had.

For an easy appetizer I did some radish toasts—an idea I picked up from an old Jaques Pepin cookbook.  Slice baguettes thinly, slather with good butter, top with thinly sliced radishes and sprinkle with good salt.  Easy peasy.

The main menu featured:

Butternut Squash and Apple Soup from “The Barefoot Contessa Parties!”

Slow-Roasted-Spiced Pork from Ina Garten “Make It Ahead.”

Maple Baked Beans from “The Barefoot Contessa At Home.”

Winter Slaw featuring kale, brussel sprouts and dried cranberries—also from Make it Ahead.

Sour Cream Cornbread—another Make It Ahead recipe (Ina really outdid herself with that cookbook. I’ve used it extensively especially when I have family in town and want to prep things in advance.)

Dessert was a pumpkin cheesecake that I’ve made for years. It comes from “California Fresh” a cookbook compiled published by the Junior League of Oakland-East Bay in 1985.  Good recipes never go out of fashion.

Pumpkin Cheesecake

Karen Shapiro, La Viennese Pastires, Oakland


3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs (about 12 single crackers)

1/2 cup ground pecans

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup butter, melted


3/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup pumpkin puree

3 egg yolks

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground mace

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 pounds natural cream cheese, softened

6 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 egg plus 1 yolk

2 tablespoons whipping cream

1 tablespoon sifted cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract

Whipped cream and whole pecans for garnish

To prepare Crust: Combine all ingredients and mix well, coating crumbs completely with butter.  Pat crumb mixture firmly onto bottom of a 9-inch springform pan.  Place in freezer while preparing filling.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To prepare Filling: Mix 3/4 cup sugar, pumpkin puree, 3 egg yolks, cinnamon, mace, ginger, and salt in a bowl.  Set aside.  With an electric mixer, beat cream cheese and 6 tablespoons sugar until smooth.  Add the egg plus 1 yolk and the whipping cream.  Mix again until smooth.  Add cornstarch and blend well. Add vanilla and lemon extracts.  Mix again until very smooth.  Add spiced pumpkin puree to the cream cheese mixture.  Mix until no traces of white remain. (The smooth texture of this cheesecake depends on thorough mixing.)

Pour filling over crumb mixture in springform pan.  Bake 45 minutes, or until sides have risen.  The center will still be somewhat soft.  Remove from oven.  Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until thoroughly chilled.  Run a knife around the edge of the pan and release the sides.  Remove cheesecake from pan bottom.

Garnish with whipped cream rosettes and whole pecans.


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Our Garden Project – The Rocks

Now that we’ve returned to whatever we call Not Daylight Savings Time and the days are growing short, I’m reflecting on what we’ve done around here over the past year. Counting my blessings, I’m grateful for the beautiful garden that greets me every time I come home. Some of you may be dreaming up some spring garden plans of your own.  If so, I thought I’d share some photos of our garden design and installation to help you plan for garden projects you might want to tackle when we turn our clocks forward again.

Let’s start with the foundation of the garden design – the dirt and the rocks.

The good news was that our existing soil wasn’t terrible.  It still needed some amendments but we weren’t working with impacted clay that needed extensive re-working.  A landscaping crew cleared out the few struggling plants from a long-defunct garden, leveled the existing soil and spread a new layer of soil over the area to be landscaped. Time to add some larger rocks to contain and shape the garden.

Buying Rocks

In early April I met up with our landscape designer Keeyla Meadows at American Soil & Stone in Richmond, CA.  American Soil sells dirt and rocks and a few other things but mostly lots of dirt and rocks in every size.  We were there for the big rocks.


Keeyla had in mind some beautiful brown and black birdbath basalt boulders.  These sculptural beauties are quarried in Washington in such a way that one side often forms a bowl.  The bowls hold rain (or irrigation) water which attracts birds—thus their name. The idea was to put a  number of them in the front yard and then connect them with a dry stream bed of smaller rocks—preferably some black Mexican river rock to bring out the black veining in the basalt.

Alas, we couldn’t find river rock black enough to match the basalt so we decided to keep hunting for the smaller rocks but selected nine basalt boulders and some less-expensive granite boulders to use in and around the rock walls of the driveway.

Boulders selected and order placed, we were on our way out of the stone yard when Keeyla’s toe caught on a palette of rock causing her to trip and fall and break her elbow! The next few hours were spent in the emergency room.  Ugh.  Keeyla was headed for surgery and would be out of commission for a few weeks.

Installing the Rocks

A month or so later, Keeyla was on the mend (though she would be in a sling or in physical therapy through most of the project, poor thing!) and we set dates for the rocks to be delivered and a crane to show up to move them into place.  There was some question as to whether we’d need a big or a little crane.  Thank goodness we could get away with a little one, because cranes don’t come cheap.

The day the crane arrived was very operatic – cold and windy with swirling fog.   Ominously, it seemed like a day when someone could end up in the emergency room again. (Thankfully, no one did.) Look at the front wheels of the truck levitating–so sorry I didn’t have a little boy still at home to watch this equipment in action.

A crew loaded each rock into a sling attached to the arm of the crane. Keeyla took her place as “the rock whisperer” and guided every boulder into place, carefully turning it in its sling until it was sitting just where she wanted it.

The guys worked with hand tools to do further fine tuning.

By the end of the day we had our own little bird-friendly druid circle in the front and a rebuilt driveway area that was decidedly more interesting.

Tinkering with Rocks

Once the big rocks were in, the crew could lay down the stream bed. Since our first trip to American Soil we’d continued to look for other blacker river rock—but to no avail. We revisited  American Soil and decided that their latest batch of Mexican river rock looked blacker, more suitable. We had a basket delivered and the landscaping crew commenced to lay out the stream under Keeyla’s direction. (By now some plants were in place as well.)

But it was clear once they were down that the color of the river rock was going to be a problem.  It wasn’t only that it wasn’t as black as the basalt veining, it was actually quite BLUE out there in the wild.  The crew left for the day and I kept checking on the color.  I told myself that the rocks were very beautiful on their own and their grey-blue color did highlight the Bay view beyond the garden.

But as much as I tried to embrace the gray rocks, it was clear they were wrong.  The blue cast was such a strong contrast that you lost the zen beauty of the basalt.  And so, another trip to American Soil where this time we found a mix of brown and tan rocks in various sizes that coordinated with the brown color of the basalt.  Keeyla sprinkled some little black pebbles between the river rocks to highlight the basalt veining. Here are some before and after shots.  Rock on!

Next up – The Plants


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Friday Things: The (Somewhat) Formal Dinner Party Edition

Tonight we’re having friends over for a (somewhat) formal dinner party.  Something I’d like to do more often but after a week of planning, shopping, prepping and cooking I remember why this is a rare occasion. It’s a whole lot of work!

I know,  I know.  It doesn’t need to be this way.  I could pick up a lasagna and charcuterie at the local deli and replate them for my guests before serving a simple homemade (or not) dessert.  If I did, I’d entertain more often.

But tonight’s gathering happens to be a dinner we donated to a charity auction last year to raise money for a Sub-for-Santa event. It deserves more effort. So I’ve dug deep–literally, to excavate my old wedding goblets to pair with my new Anthropologie plates—and embraced my inner Martha.

And you know what? Today, when there are fresh flowers on the table and my wedding goblets sparkle in the afternoon sun while the house smells like Mom’s Sunday dinner,  I remember why women used to entertain this way.

Other things I’ve entertained  this week:

Pretty pastries.

The List App. 

George Washington, Mules and Donald Trump.

How to make a newspaper blackout poem.

Mindy tackles every mom’s dilemma.

Halloween (and other) candy reviews.

Goofy ghoulish art.

Happy Halloween Weekend All!



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Learning More About Your Landscape

I recently attended a wonderful writer’s conference near Bend, Oregon sponsored by Women Writing the West.  One of the most memorable sessions of the conference was a workshop on “Landscape as Character” led by two Colorado writers – Dawn Wink and Susan J. Tweit.  For anyone writing about people and places in the West, the landscape looms large.  But Wink and Tweit say that no matter where you live, paying attention to small details is the best way to understand the big picture.

For example, plant biologist Tweit says that in the modern age we tend to use our sense of smell the least, which is a shame because it can evoke some of our most powerful memories. To help us tap into our non-visual senses she had us close our eyes for five minutes and write down what we experienced. No surprise, it was much easier to tune into the sounds, smells and physical sensations of the room once we’d turned off the “video.”

Try it yourself.  Take out a pencil and paper, set a timer and close your eyes.  Don’t worry.  You’ll still be able to read your scribbles when you’re done.  Were you surprised by what you smelled, heard, touched and tasted?

Another helpful exercise came by way of a worksheet Tweit provided.  Take out another sheet of paper and answer these questions as best you can.

  • What watershed is your place part of? (Note: A watershed is the area where all the water under it or off of it drains to the same place. Mine is the San Francisco Bay. To find yours go here.)
  • What bioregion is your place part of? (Great Basin, for instance, or Cascade Range)
  • What is the name of the closest prominent local landmark?
  • Name ten plants characteristic of the place:
  • Ten birds:
  • Twenty animals/fish/insects/reptiles:
  • Name ten historical figures whose lives or actions shaped the story of the place:
  • Which Indian groups lived in the area? What were their names for the place?

After I’d answered these questions to help with the revisions on the early chapters of my novel-in-progress set in northern Switzerland I felt like I should have been awarded a merit badge (or at least a bar of Swiss chocolate.) It was a very helpful exercise and one I’m excited to repeat for the San Francisco Bay Watershed where I live now.  As well as the Henry’s Fork Watershed in Idaho where I grew up and the Bear River Watershed in Utah where the rest of my novel takes place.

Even if you’re not a writer but would like to have a better understanding of where you live, answering these questions–and engaging your senses as you do so–will enrich your life. Especially if you indulge in some locavore chocolate when you’re done.

Have you found ways to learn more about your landscape beyond photographs? 


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Friday Things: The October Beach Edition

In October and April we gather with friends at the beach.  It’s one of my favorite things.

To quote author L.L. Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables): “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”

Happy Weekend All!

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Friday Things: The Plastic Tumblers Edition

They say this will be the last super hot weekend around here for awhile.  Which makes sense, since we’re having air conditioning installed on Monday.

Until it—and the fog—arrive, we’ll be hydrating like crazy. And thus, today’s Friday Things topic: Plastic Tumblers.

We own a range of nice drinking glasses—everything from the now vintage olive green goblets we got as wedding gifts in 1980 to sleek, contemporary (and easily replaceable) old-fashioneds from Crate & Barrel.  But none of them really hold the amount of ice water/lemonade/Diet Coke that a tall, plastic tumbler can.

For years we had kid-friendly Tupperware tumblers in bright colors.  But it seemed like it was time to class up the everyday glassware  a bit.  I spotted some elegant straight sided clear tumblers on the end-of-summer sale table at Pottery Barn and snapped them up only to find that they couldn’t survive the dishwasher (ahem, not disclosed when I purchased them).  They ended up streaked and cracked and basically useless after a few washings. (See above left.)

I took my search more seriously and finally settled on the Valencia Tall Tumblers from Williams-Sonoma.  So far they’re holding up just fine.  They’re sturdy, the rim is nicely rounded so they’re comfortable to drink from, and they look like running water—a cooling visual effect. Also, like something my Grandma Loosli would have owned.  I’ll let you know how they perform on this last big weekend of icy beverage consumption. In the meantime, here are a few other things I test-drove this week:

Commiseration for those, like my daughter Sydney, who aren’t so happy about fall. (Not me, I can’t wait for it to cool off around here!)

A spooky fun October/Halloween decoration project.

A peek into this SF cookbook author’s kitchen–love the washi tape labeling idea.

The fuss about how women speak.

One person’s meditation about finding his faith (which happens to be my faith.)

This waving Solar-Powered Pope Francis.

My sister Michelle LOVES and heartily endorses the soundtrack to the Broadway production of Hamilton. Can’t wait to give it a listen.

In the meantime, I’ve been listening to Irish singer songwriter Glen Hansard’s new album “Didn’t He Ramble” all week and enjoying it very much.

Happy Weekend All!  Stay cool.

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Plum Poppy Seed Muffins

I’ve always been a breakfast person, but as I grow older I tend to like lighter fare first thing in the day.  Maybe some homemade muesli (see below) or wheat toast with nut butter and fruit on the side.  Egg dishes make an appearance on the weekends or when guests are around.  (I know, I know–I’m worth the extra effort, but I also don’t want to deal with the extra cleanup first thing in the morning.)

Baked breakfast goods are also a rarity. With just the two of us here most of the time I rarely make muffins anymore. But at the end of summer I find myself craving this hearty plum-studded muffin from food blogger Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen cookbook.


These muffins are a little bit healthier than most because of the whole wheat flour and fresh fruit. They’re neither too sweet or greasy and the poppy seeds add a subtle crunch.  (You can read more about how Perelman developed the recipe here).  And, as promised in Perelman’s chatty description before the recipe, they are just as good the second day or heated up later if you freeze them (again, the compromises/advantages of the empty nest.)

With the slight time addition of chopping the fruit, these are no harder to make than most “scratch” muffin recipes.  I tend to have whole wheat pastry flour around so I use that instead of whole wheat flour and I use silicone muffin cup liners for easier cleanup.  I’ve tried this recipe with various types of plums, but the Italian prune plums Perelman recommends are actually the best. So grab a handful of those late season plums as we say goodbye to summer and make this satisfying muffin.

Plum Poppy Seed Muffins 

from “The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook” by Deb Perelman

Yield: 12 standard muffins

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and browned and cooled, plus butter for muffin cups

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup packed dark or light brown sugar

3/4 cup sour cream or a rich,full-fat plain yogurt

1/2 cup whole-wheat flour

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon table salt

Pinch of ground cinnamon

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

2 tablespoons (20 grams) poppy seeds

2 cups pitted and diced plums, from about 3/4 pound Italian prune plums (though any plum variety will do)

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Butter twelve muffin cups.

Whisk the egg with both sugars in the bottom of a large bowl.  Stir in the melted butter, then the sour cream.  In a separate bowl, mix together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and poppy seeds, and then stir them into sour-cream mixture until it is just combined and still a bit lumpy.  Fold in the plums.

Divide batter among prepared muffin cups.  Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until the tops are golden and a tester inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean.  Rest muffins in the pan on a cooling rack for 2 minutes, then remove them from the tin to cool them completely.


Home Made Cold Cereal 

From “Vegan Before 6” by Mark Bittman

3 1/2 cups rolled oats

1/2 cup mixed chopped nuts and seeds (like almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, sunflower seeds, or flax seeds)

1/2 cup raisins or other chopped dried fruit

1/4 cup unsweetened grated coconut

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon or cardamom, or to taste

Pinch salt

4 cups soy or oat milk or other nondairy milk, for serving

Combine the oats, nuts and seeds, raisins, coconut, and spices in a large bowl.  Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 months.

To serve, put about 1 cup in a bowl and top with 1/2 cup milk.  If you have time, let the bowl sit for 5 to 10 minutes to let the oats absorb some of the milk so they’ll soften and sweeten.

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Kathryn Pritchett

writes about Things Elemental — where we find shelter, why we connect, what sustains us and how we strut our stuff.

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